The St. John's IceCaps have punched their ticket to the AHL Eastern Conference Finals after a grueling series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. This was as even a match-up as one can see over a playoff series, with the final decision coming down to the final seconds of Game 7.
After splitting the first two-game leg of the series in St. John's, it was looking like the Penguins would have the defensive edge in the series. They employed the strategy that's currently in fashion in the Stanley Cup Playoffs: clogging the shooting lanes in their own zone by collapsing around their goalie to block shots, coupled with a counterattack approach to offense. Game 2 found the IceCaps with no answer to this game-plan and they fell 3 -1, out-matched by the larger, stronger Penguins' line-up.
The Caps regrouped and came into Game 3 in Pennsylvania pushing to retake the series lead. Yet the three meetings in the Penguins' home barn showed just how evenly these teams were matched. Every game went to overtime at the Mohegan Sun Arena, with the IceCaps generally out-skating the Penguins, but not being able to contain the Penguins' large bodies like defenseman Joey Mormina and forward Eric Tangradi.
Tightly contested as these road games were for the IceCaps, they were able to squeeze wins out of Games 3 and 4, putting themselves ahead 3-1 in the series. With three games left to post a series-clinching victory, it seemed like the Caps had a stranglehold on the Penguins. Yet the Pens were able to end their home-stand on a strong note after Simon Despres potted the double-overtime winning goal to take Game 5.
The Penguins carried that momentum back to St. John's, and put up a dominant performance in Game 6, doing all the little things right. They outworked many of the IceCaps match-ups, got the first goal, out-blocked the home team, and played an effective shutdown game, much like they had in Game 2.
The IceCaps managed to score twice on the powerplay in this meeting, but the Penguins did as well, followed by two even- strength goals in the third period that secured the 4-2 win for the visitors and tying the series at 3 wins apiece.
Early in Game 7 St. John's pressed for the lead, holding the puck in the Penguins zone and creating some significant scoring chances, including a shot off the post from Paul Postma that fooled goaltender Brad Theissen.
John Albert, who had one of his best games ever as an IceCap, opened the scoring midway through the first by shaking around a Penguins d-man feeding the puck across the crease to Ray Sawada for the easy tap-in.
Aaron Gagnon earned a two-goal night and gave his team a cushion in the third period, but a reckless boarding penalty by Patrice Cormier - and the ensuing powerplay goal for for the Pens - brought the score to 3-2 St. John's for the last ten minutes of regulation.
The Icecaps seemed to suffer complete mental collapse after the goal, allowing multiple giveaways and scoring chances-against as the Penguins pushed to tie the game. Yet the home team weathered the storm and the closing minutes ticked away to the final horn due to a tremendous defensive effort by the Caps.
It has been an impressive first season for the St. John's franchise, finishing first in the Atlantic Division, second in the Eastern Conference behind the powerhouse Norfolk Admirals, and now they're meeting that number one seed in the Conference Finals. Any team in their first year should be content with such achievements, but the IceCaps - needless to say - are not yet satisfied.